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Ski suki? Take a powder in Hokkaido

by Aeve Baldwin
Yotei-zan, the Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido, is a picture perfect backdrop for the slopes of Niseko Courtesy of JAL

Several ski resort managers were starting to get a little antsy. You see, here it was the middle of November, with ski season' opening day (November 27) just a few short weeks away and not a flake of snow in sight. "We're bringing out the snow machines just in case," whispered one.

Photo by Mike Jacobs

No need to have worried. True to form, Japan's premier ski destination is now blanketed in white. Characterized by uncrowded slopes, short lift lines and powder snow, there's perhaps no better place in Japan for skiing and snowboarding than our northernmost isle.

Where shall I go?
Make no bones about it, Hokkaido is big country. With dozens of resorts scattered kilometers apart, choosing a destination can seem daunting. A hint: While this may sound obvious, the key to an enjoyable ski break in Hokkaido is to decide what kind of experience you're looking for. If you're single or with a group of friends who'll be expecting apres ski frolics, a trip to a remote resort, populated with snuggling couples and families with kids - and perhaps sporting only one bar - will bore you to tears. Stay in Sapporo, which is convenient to several slopes and offers the famous (and infamous) nightlife fun of the Susukino area. If you're looking for privacy, or have kids who require on-site sitter facilities, a resort is just the ticket. Time is also a factor; Sapporo is just right for that weekend getaway, while far-flung resorts such as Tomamu require at least three days. All options are covered below.

Sapporo days and nights
Sapporo is the ideal escape if you're short on time. With dozens of flights daily from Tokyo's Haneda Airport, one can fly out after work, check into a hotel and be on the slopes first thing next morning - if you don't get waylaid in Susukino, that is. There are plenty of hotels around the station (you don't even have to exit the station building to get to the Keio Plaza, tel 011-271-0111) but I enthusiastically recommend a stay at the quality Renaissance Sapporo Hotel (tel 011-821-1111, fax 011-842-6191), which sported king-size beds and a bathroom bigger than my Tokyo apartment. Another plus for Sapporo is that it leaves the non-skier with options: A day trip to Otaru with its outdoor canal and huge new shopping complex will keep shopaholics and film fiends (the new Warner Mycal multiplex airs more than ten movies) quite content.

Sapporo Teine Highland Ski Area
A 40-minute drive from Sapporo (train and bus connections also available), there are no hotels here so it's purely for the ski and flee set. Frequented mostly by experienced skiers (many locals come to ski what is perhaps the most difficult course in Hokkaido) there are rarely any lines and all signs (including the menu in the cafeteria) are also in English, a legacy of the 1972 Winter Olympics. The adjoining ski school offers lessons in English, thanks to Miura Yuichiro (see Big in Japan on p 54).
Freedial 0120-610-555, tel 011-683-3721 or see http://ski.joy.ne.jp/teinehighland/

Photo by Mike Jacobs

Power powder further afield
Rusutsu
About an hour and a half from Chitose airport, this one-stop Mecca for the ski and snowboard set can accommodate up to 4000 and has a little something for everyone. An amusement park for the kids, an indoor carousel designed by a former Disney employee, along with babysitting, nine restaurants, a massage and esthe salon, and spacious maisonette rooms, Rusutsu also boasts consistently good skiing weather (unlike nearby Kiroro) which means that there will be very few days where you can't zip from your room out onto the waiting slopes.
Tel 0136-46-3331 or see www.rusutsu.co.jp

Niseko
The drive to Niseko offers a splendid view of Mt. Yotei, the "Fuji of Hokkaido." With road signs clearly marked in both English and Japanese, driving is easy - if you don't mind dodging the speed demons the empty roads encourage. Niseko sports four resorts on one big mountain; purchase a "passport" and ski all four. Unlike Rusutsu, there's no on-site entertainment, but the skiing is more challenging; this is not a destination for beginners. The Niseko Grand Hotel (0136-58-2121) has a mixed rotemburo (outdoor hot spring), while the Nikko Annupuri Hotel (tel 0136-58-3366, fax 0136-58-3317) has a cozy bar (the "Lavender Lounge") with a burning fire and views of the slopes, making Niseko ideal for the couple trying to get away from it all... or get into each other.

Alpha Resort Tomamu
Like Sahoro below, Tomamu is far enough away (a good three to four hour drive from Sapporo) to require a stay of three days to make it worth your while. The suites at this huge resort (it can accommodate up to 8000 people) are spectacular, replete with jacuzzi, sauna and snowy views. Spread out over a huge expanse, there are shuttle buses that go everywhere, from the hotels to the Spa House with its gigantic pool (which also comes with a view) that has waves, a fake beach, and an outdoor hot pool, and back to the slopes again.
Tel 0167-57-2111 or see www.tomamu.co.jp/

Sahoro Resort
With only 165 rooms, Sahoro is cozy and friendly - a private hideaway with an open fire in the lounge. There are only two hotels here so there are rarely any lines at the lifts, which can be reached just by sliding out the front door. Sahoro Peak rises to 1059m and this year the management is trying out a new machine (one of only five in Japan) that creates waves; not moguls exactly, more like surfing on snow.
Tel 01566-4-5353

How do I book?
Beltop Travel Services takes the hassle (and the language barrier) out of booking your Hokkaido tour. The easiest way to book is online (www.beltop.com). Beltop's DAI SKI TOURS is a JALStory product (a subsidiary of Japan Airlines). Beltop has been in the travel business in Japan, catering predominantly to the foreign market, for the past 14 years. Access the website, make a few clicks, and your next stop will be the slopes.

You may also make direct bookings with JAL by calling 0120-489-747 (some staff speak English), or call your travel agent.

What do I take?
Nothing. One of the joys of Hokkaido ski travel is hopping a plane in Tokyo, catching your connecting train, bus or waiting rent-a-car, and renting all your equipment and attire at the slopes. If you have your own gear, the easiest approach is to takkyubin it from home. Sagawa Kyubin has special ski delivery boxes, and all resorts are used to handling takkyubin deliveries.

If you want your own gear (especially if you're worried about finding larger sizes) try "the Akihabara of skiing" discount street near Ochanomizu station, which sells 95% of the gear sold in Japan. Enormous discounts, often last year's models, mean the savvy shopper can outfit him or herself for around JY20,000 - less than a night in Ginza.

Why are you still reading? Hit the slopes!

Photo by Mike Jacobs
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